Mommies Who Rock
Years ago, I was waiting to see Dar Williams at the Troubadour in L.A. She was quite late in taking the stage, and I overheard someone say jokingly, “She must be putting her kids to bed.” Inwardly I agreed that that was a possibility, though later I found out that it was not, since she didn’t actually have any kids at that point (it was an honest mistake, since many of her lyrics were told from a mother’s perspective, and she had a real crunchy granola maternal air about her).
The reason I’m thinking about this now is that I’ve been thinking a lot about musicians who are mothers, and how the simple, mundane act of putting your kids to bed at the end of the day can be so in conflict with working your day (or night) job. Musicians generally don’t write songs, record, perform live, and tour just for the fun of it. They do it because they HAVE to, because it is a primal need that inhabits their souls. But being with your kids, not just loving them, but being physically WITH them, is also a primal need as old as time, and the two don’t always mesh easily.
Women have always struggled to balance work and motherhood, keeping lots of balls in the air, while searching for some kind of personal fulfillment. For women who live and breathe music, incorporating motherhood into an often vagabond lifestyle can be especially challenging. Social stigmas of the mid-twentieth century created even greater challenges, as female musicians were generally viewed as immoral or at least of questionable morals, a mirror-opposite of the ideal of wife/mother/homemaker. Just supporting oneself was hard, and bringing a baby into the equation was often impossible. Joni Mitchell famously gave up a baby for adoption while she was working the coffee house circuit in the early ’60s. Many musicians moms like Aretha Franklin left their kids in the care of family members while they pursued their careers.
Time, and increased access to birth control, as well as safe and legal abortion, has improved the situation for most. Motherhood can be deferred to a later date, when money woes and the pressures of trying to break into the business are less dire. There are issues associated with waiting to have children, though, and some musicians have found that Mother Nature is not always on board with the program. Tori Amos, despite suckling a pig on an album cover and having a song called “Mother,” experienced great difficulty becoming one herself (she suffered three miscarriages before giving birth to daughter while in her late 30s). Mariah Carey also suffered a miscarriage and had a very difficult pregnancy with her twins, demonstrating that having babies after 40 is usually a lot harder physically than when you’re a spring chicken. Sheryl Crow essentially missed the motherhood boat while achieving fame and battling cancer, though she joyously adopted two little boys and fulfilled her desire to be a mom, in her 40s.
Coming into motherhood later in life and after establishing a career does have numerous benefits, particularly greater control over the direction of your career. This affects how and where kids are exposed to their moms’ work. Many rocker moms choose to keep their children out of the glare of the media, especially while they are young. Some take a break from recording and live a more traditional family-oriented existence. Even Patti Smith, who, like Joni Mitchell, gave up a baby for adoption in the ’60s, went into semi-retirement while her kids were little (she did some recording, but gave up touring all together). Annie Lennox also decreased her public profile for a period of time while her daughters were young. Pat Benatar wouldn’t tour while her younger daughter was in school, so that she could be home for the never-ending mom duties of homework supervision and school activities.
Lots of contemporary musician moms don’t slow down their recording and touring even with small children, like Alanis Morissette, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keyes, and Beyonce (who barely took a break between giving birth and performing). This is certainly easier when you are a well-established performer who can hire a slew of nannies to care for your kids. Some take their kids on tour with them (enabling that end of the day “tuck you into bed” time), but most do not.
Whereas being a mom was once a liability for a musician, it can be a publicity asset now. Pictures of celebrity babies are much sought after by internet and print photographers, and it seems like there are a million stories in People, etc. about how celebrity moms balance work and home. Gwen Stephani recently did a Windows Phone commercial that featured her music and fashion design, but concluded with her kids calling her up as she settled in for a cozy convo. Having it all and doing it all are heralded as being within reach, these days.
Of course, there are some musician moms who raise eyebrows. Courtney Love famously lost custody of her newborn daughter for several months (as the movie “Trainspotting” showed us, mommyhood and heroin really don’t mix), and left Frances’ upbringing predominately to nannies as she bounced back and forth between drug abuse and drug-related arrests and rehab. And seriously, imagine going through life with MADONNA as your mom. It’s interesting that Madonna has tried to portray herself as “just like other single mothers,” but who she is and what she does make her far from your typical single mom. Her older daughter and son, now teenagers, have no doubt had an interesting life with the Material Girl. The little ones she adopted from Malawi will probably have a different kind of life, but still full of Mom’s drama.
Yet most women, musician or otherwise, are profoundly changed by motherhood, and it imbues their professional as well as personal lives. Earlier this year, Pink (already in the news for unapologetically breastfeeding in public) was performing on stage when she noticed a disturbance down on the floor. She stopped the show and asked what was going on. It seems that a fight had broken out, but what caught Pink’s eye was a little girl crying in fear near the altercation. Pink admonished the people for fighting near a little girl and attempted to make her feel better. “Honey, do you want this frog [reaching down onto the stage and picking up a stuffed frog]? Do you want this rice krispie treat?” (Pink keeps rice krispie treats on stage with her? And PSA: People, please do not bring little kids onto the floor at live shows! SERIOUSLY, listen to this mama, it is NOT safe.) She asked the audience to pass the frog and snack over to the little girl, who smiled hugely. I doubt Pink would have acted this way prior to becoming a mom, before the connection to her child made nurturing as immediate and natural as singing.
All moms rock in their own way, but some moms rock harder than others